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Smithianism in Russia

Mises Daily: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 by

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Smithianism also began to penetrate Russian political culture. Cultural and intellectual life had only begun to flower in that backward and despotic empire in the mid-18th century. The University of Moscow, the first university in Russia, started at the late date of 1755. Enlightenment ideas spread in Russia, and we have seen that Catherine the Great at least flirted briefly with physiocracy. French was the language of the Russian court, and so any ideas prevailing in France, the home of the Enlightenment, had to be taken seriously in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In addition, the Scottish version of the 18th century Enlightenment was in a sense carried to Russia by the fact that a large number of Scottish professionals — doctors, soldiers, engineers — resided and worked in that country. Scottish Enlightenment books were translated, generally into French, and published in Russia.

In the 1760s, it was the custom of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, the daughter of Peter the Great, to select outstanding students to finish their studies abroad. As a result, the empress made the fateful choice of sending to Scotland in 1761 two men who would be particularly instrumental in spreading Smithian ideas to Russia. The more important of the two was Semyon Efimovich Desnitsky, son of a Ukrainian petty bourgeois, and his lifelong friend and classmate at university, Ivan Andreyevich Tretyakov (1735–76), son of an army officer. The two studied at Glasgow University for six years, studying eagerly under Adam Smith until the latter left his chair at Glasgow in 1764. At Glasgow, Desnitsky and Tretyakov heard Smith's Wealth of Nations lectures, and also studied under Smith's colleague and former student John Millar. When the two Russian students were in financial difficulty, Adam Smith lent them money to tide them over. The two Russians returned to Moscow in 1768, imbued with Smithian doctrine, and promptly became the first Russian professors of law at Moscow University. In Moscow, the young Smithians ran into strong faculty hostility. The majority of professors at Moscow University had been German, and the Germans strongly opposed the successful drive by the younger Russians to teach in Russian rather than Latin, and even more were the Germans hostile to the two Smithians' liberal, reformist and anticlerical views.

Desnitsky and Tretyakov each published a Smithian book in their first year back in Russia. Both books were largely verbatim transcriptions of Smith's lectures, with Desnitsky ghost-writing Tretyakov's volume. Of the two from that point on, Tretyakov was more the faithful Smithian, Desnitsky more the independent thinker. Both men were dominant in the political and law faculty at Moscow University, with Desnitsky becoming known as the outstanding Russian social and political theorist of the second half of the 18th century, as well as "the father of Russian jurisprudence." Desnitsky also translated the great Blackstone into Russian.

Empress Catherine the Great became interested in the latest intellectual craze, the Scottish Enlightenment and, on Desnitsky's return from Russia, commissioned him to write a Smithian reform plan for Russia, a massive volume — the Predstavlenie — which he finished and sent to Catherine in 1768. Its basic thrust was that of moderate political reform; Desnitsky proposed a system of two-house representation, along with independent, life-appointed judges, serving as checks and balances on the executive and legislature. Catherine the Great read the Predstavlenie, and incorporated politically trivial suggestions into her famous 1768 reform decree, the Nakaz, which was translated into English, French, and German.

The Predstavlenie itself, however, was far too radical to see the light of day, and it remained unpublished until the revolutionary year of 1905, when it inspired liberal reformers and was reprinted twice in rapid succession.

The influence of Smithianism in Russia was redoubled by the fact that Princess Ekaterina Dashkova resided in Scotland in the late 1770s, while her son studied at Edinburgh University. Dashkova wrote proudly of her close friendship with such "immortals" as Adam Smith, the Reverend William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, and Hugh Blair.

But despite their eminence, the hostility of the Russian state and Church, seconded by most of the Moscow faculty, to the two jurists' liberal views got them ousted from their university posts. Each was forcibly retired from the university, Tretyakov in 1773, and Desnitsky in 1787, and each died early a few years after their ouster.

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Picking up the Smithian torch for the next Russian generation was a German Smithian usually considered a Russian by historians. He was the Baltic German nobleman Heinrich Friedrich Freiherr von Storch (1766–1835). Born in Riga and educated at Jena and Heidelberg, Storch spent his life high up in the Russian civil service, becoming a professor at the Imperial Cadet Corps at St. Petersburg, and educating the future Czar Nicholas I and his younger brother in Smithian political economy. Helping to bring Smithianism to Russia, von Storch wrote, in German, a nine-volume historical and statistical work on Russia at the end of the 18th century (1797–1803), and later wrote a treatise on economics in French, Cours d'économie politique (1815). The book was published in St. Petersburg for the education of the future czar. A moderate Smithian, von Storch sensibly rejected the idea that some labor was "unproductive," and dabbled in a form of pre-Keynesian income analysis in his last work in 1824.